Certain things in this world resist definite classification. Is Jello a solid or a liquid? Is a tomato a fruit or a vegetable? Add to this list Joseph S. Pulver, Sr.â€™s The Orphan Palace. Is it poetry or prose? A novel or an epic poem? The book is divided into chapters, features a protagonist and antagonist, as well as a cast of supporting characters, and thereâ€™s a definite beginning, middle, and end. The structure, however, often appears much more like lines of verse than paragraphs of prose, like this passage from the first chapter:
â€œAt the end of the block he turns around, looks back at it. Knows what heâ€™s got to do.
Thereâ€™s fire in his eyes.
The need to tumble outta here.
Heart says away.
Windâ€™s headed East.
Cardigan thinks thatâ€™away.
At times, Pulverâ€™s style builds momentum and carries a rhythm, but it can also be choppy and disorienting. The reason behind this strange mode of narration is the history and mental state of the protagonist, Cardigan. As a young boy, Cardigan spent several years at Zimms County Home For Orphaned Children, where he and his friends became victims of the twisted Dr. Archer, a man who claimed, â€œWe can cure madness with volts.â€ Cardigan remembers his experiences with the volts as â€œlightning,â€ â€œthe fangs of the Hounds of Tindalos,â€ or â€œthe mindless WHITE burns,â€ and the electro-torture achieves the opposite of Archerâ€™s intended effect.
Despite the narrativeâ€™s unconventional structure, the plot and motivation are straightforward. The story begins with Cardigan as an adult twenty years after he and his friend Sharkey escaped from Zimms.Â He decides that he cannot be at peace without returning east to Massachusetts and killing his tormenter, Dr. Archer. To do so, he must travel across the continental United States. Along the way, Cardigan has several strange encounters, from occasional meetings with his friend Dâ€™if, a talking rat who shows up to offer Cardigan advice or company, to a run-in with a merman, and he even tags along with a pair of bounty hunters. Outraged by the prevalence of evil he discovers while travelling across the country, Cardigan is quick to shoot and a remorseless killer. More often than not, he leaves town with a fire burning in his rearview mirror.
Cardiganâ€™s favorite places to stay overnight on his journey are branches of a cheap hotel chain, which provides the storyâ€™s only consistent subplot. Whatâ€™s peculiar about this hotel chain is that instead of keeping bibles in the nightstand, each room is stocked with a different gritty noir book published by Shadow House. Each book features the same cover artwork and is a slight variation of the same story. Cardigan is fascinated by these books and convinces himself that they have something to do with Zimms and Dr. Archer. He comes to believe that the Doctor, the writers, and the brothers responsible for publishing the books are all members of some evil cult. Throughout his journey, Cardigan manages to track down and interview three of the Shadow House writers, but they offer him very little insight.
By the time the final chapter ends, there are several loose ends yet to be tied up. Many things that seem important when first introduced to the story are marginalized or never mentioned again. For example, in one chapter Cardigan meets a young woman who it seems will be his love interest, but she only exists in that chapter. And at one point he trades with a ghoul for a magic coin that can test the truth of a statement, but itâ€™s only referenced again once, and Cardigan never uses it. And although they are certainly linked to Cardiganâ€™s mission in some mysterious way, the Shadow House books amount to nothing. Perhaps this is the authorâ€™s intention, to create a narrative in which the protagonist searches for connections in all the wrong places, but it becomes frustrating. Thereâ€™s no great revelation to be found, nor a sense of justice, and a minimal amount of closure.
At its best, The Orphan Palace is a dark, visceral, gore-laden mystery that wastes no time getting to the action and emotion. At its worse, itâ€™s a wandering tale thick with abstractions that keep the reader at armâ€™s-length from any deep meaning or connection. Itâ€™s an unusual piece of work; that, at least, can be said for sure.
Thomas Michael Duncan lives in Syracuse, New York. His reviews have appeared in Necessary Fiction Reviews, Prick of the Spindle, and Blood Lotus Journal. Visit him atÂ tmdwrites.tumblr.com.